Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars

When I visit a used book store, thrift store, or yard sale, I'm always looking for an addition to my already over-stuffed collection of books. I've cut back a lot on my purchases of late, but still pick up some. I'm especially vulnerable to collections of letters of any kind. Sometime in early 2011 I found War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll [2011; ISBN 0-7432-0294-5; Simon & Schuster]. I bought it and quickly adjusted my reading pile so that it was near the top.

This book was written for me, the letter lover. It's 493 pages contain approximately 200 letters, from the Civil War, World War 1, World War 2, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Sudan, and Bosnia/Kosovo. For each letter Carroll provides some descriptive text about the war circumstances and the correspondents, then gives the letter, then, when required, tells something of the fate of the writer.

The book is the result of the Legacy Project. Founded by Carroll after an earlier book of American letters, the project was mentioned in a Dear Abby column in 1998, and the results were phenomenal. Letter poured in, and the all-volunteer staff at the project had their hands full.

As can be expected, letters from those at the front convey a mixed sense of optimism, fear, despair, hope, and longing. The worth of the war is often a topic. What are we fighting for? Only in the letters during the Vietnam War is there a sense of the futility of the conflict. In all other wars pride in what our servicemen were doing, and the aims of our government that put them in harm's way, superseded all.

Most of the letters in War Letters were published therein for the first time. This was intentional, as Carroll wished to demonstrate the vastness of the material available (i.e. if he could put this book together with only previously unpublished letters, image how many of them were out there). Again, most of the letters are from those who are not famous. He has one from Schwartzkopf, one from Colin Powell, one from Richard Nixon, from Eisenhower, from Pershing. The rest are from enlisted men, non-coms, and junior officers, who took the brunt of the fighting and casualties.

War Letters is well worth reading. Those who aren't in love with letters as literature may have to take this a few pages at a time. I'm going to keep this as a part of my letters collection, though I don't know that I'll ever read it again. If I don't it will be because of so many other things to read, not because of any fault of War Letters.

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